Why You Eat When You’re Not Hungry

Updated: Feb 27

Brownies on plates

The urge to eat can feel so overpowering.

We’ve often made our way to food before we’ve really had a chance to understand, let alone see, that there is something driving us to food that isn’t hunger.

Here, I unpack the 4 biggest reasons why you eat when you’re not hungry and the solution to each so you can have greater freedom and peace with food.


Chronic dieting and restricting food can prevent us from recognizing and listening to our hunger and satiety signals, over time our bodies signals become more subtle and these signals become faint whispers. When this happens we rely on other signals to determine when or how much we eat such as time of day, rigid food rules or other cravings such as emotional.


For two weeks, eat three small meals and two small snacks at regular times, regardless if you are hunger, don’t worry this is only temporary. This will help make your signals more present. Then allow these signals to guide you to eat.


Simplified, the science of habits lies in the three R’s: reminder, routine, reward. Habits are formed when this sequence is repeated overtime, essentially a neural circuit is formed. A strong desire to eat can be related to satisfying your brain’s need for dopamine (a powerful pleasure feeling chemical). Certain manufactured foods are specifically designed with the perfect mixture of sugar, fat and salt to hit this spot. In food product development this spot is called the bliss point. A strong desire to eat can be our brains need to complete the neural circuit.


The solution lies in another R: the rewire. That is rewiring the neural circuit. This can be from removing the reminder (which isn’t always possible) or changing the routine. Even extending the time from reminder to routine begins to modify the neural circuit and weaken it.


With food, we are able to numb and silence even the slightest unpleasant sensations like boredom. The accessibility of this has adapted many of us to decrease our capacity to experience and sit with unpleasant or difficult sensations. Instead we’ve developed habits to sooth unpleasant sensations as soon as they arise. Like we are meant to experience the finite colours of the light spectrum, we are also meant to experience the spectrum of emotions both pleasant and unpleasant. Emotional eating can be difficult to identify at first because it is so subtle but so powerful we easily confuse it with hunger.

When the driver to food is emotions it often comes suddenly, craves a particular kind of food, and isn’t satisfied with a full stomach. Some common emotional triggers include: excitement, frustration, anxiousness, worry, procrastination, boredom, stress and loneliness.


Emotional flexibility it the capacity to experience the spectrum of emotions without being overpowered or over-identified with them. Next time you’re reaching into your fridge or pantry pause and ask yourself if you are hungry. If no, do a body scan and see if there is any sensation your body. Try to sit with it for 90 seconds.

There is a 90-second chemical process that happens in our body to process an emotion, anything longer than this than there is some self-talk keeping you in stuck in this emotional loop. Pay attention to where the sensation sits in your body and notice how it changes over the 90 seconds. Even If you aren’t able to sit with the sensation for the entire 90 seconds to start, you will begin to foster awareness instead of being on autopilot in doing so instead of the pattern being reinforced your awareness is helping release the patter


Eating is a pleasurable experience in addition it enhances positive or pleasant sensations and numbs unpleasant sensations. Sometimes this pleasure and ease food provides is our biggest source daily pleasure and de-stress. Maybe you have a job that is stressful, and a home life that at times can be just as stressful. In this case you may find yourself turning to food, unconsciously, to receive that dose of pleasure from food.


Engage in regular activities that de-stress and provide you with a dose of joy and pleasure. These don't need to be extraordinary acts. Taking a moment to enjoy the sounds of nature, expressing gratitude or a few moments spent with your pet. When the intention is there your ability to savour and absorb the pleasure amplifies.

Need Support? I'm Serena Benali, a Registered Dietitian and food relationship expert specialized in eating disorders and disordered eating. My mission is to help you reach your happy, healthy place with food and body.

Schedule a complimentary discovery call now. I would love to guide you to a freer, healthier, happier relationship with food and body!

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